On her last tour three years ago, Taylor Swift brought out a different celebrity guest duet partner every night, usually one with local ties. That idea doesn’t seem to be getting a revival with her current “Reputation” stadium tour, partly because Swift is reluctant to repeat herself, probably, and partly because she already has two guests come out every night, when opening acts Camila Cabello and Charli XCX return to the stage late in the evening to help the headliner sing “Shake It Up.”
But old collaborative habits die hard, so there may be some marquee “features” after all, at least in select cities. Friday night, in the first of two Rose Bowl shows, Swift sounded like she was up to her “1989” tour-era tricks as she teased the roughly 60,000 fans with a bonus. “I’m gonna sing a little bit of a song, and as soon as you recognize it, if you love it as much as I do,” she said, “start screaming, singing along, or combine the two and start screaming along. And if you do that, something cool might happen. Ready to play the game?”
The audience’s prize for knowing “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back” was its author, Shawn Mendes, a former Swift warm-up act in his own right (he was an opener on parts of the “1989” tour). He has a new album coming out on May 25 but Mendes’ duty here was to trade verses with Swift on his pop smash from last summer, alternately strumming his acoustic guitar and tossing it behind his back as Swift’s unseen band picked up the relay. You wouldn’t call him an unenthusiastic performer, but Swift seemed more excited about his song than he was, jumping up and down in place at one point while he took his vocal turn, causing Mendes to break into a wide grin as he side-eyed his host.
Mendes was definitely the odd man out in the evening’s four hours of entertainment, just by being a man. Swift has had female openers here and there on her tours before (notably, last time, the band Haim). But her “Reputation” tour really feels like GirlCon 2018, both in the audience and on stage, with a formidable triple bill that lets you believe that, however far we may have to go toward fulfilling Beyoncé’s dream of women running the world, at least they’re running pop. And if a seeming lost Jonas brother like Mendes wants to join the sisterhood’s party, he’s welcome.
Swift’s two-hour capping set remained the same at the Rose Bowl as it was a week and a half earlier on opening night in Phoenix, with the exception of the wild card in an acoustic guitar solo section. On Friday night, it was “Red,” the title track from her fourth album in 2012, which she said she’d picked just from the free association of thinking what color is associated with roses. “In theory,” she said in introducing the segment, “if you write all your songs starting with one instrument, you can always take them back and play them on one instrument.”
Other than that one random slot, the show is fairly set in stone as a well-oiled, massive machine. Count the number of dancers and musicians, and this is a Broadway musical that you can see from space. What would the aliens peer upon with their telescopes? Maybe the familiar sight of stormtroopers, or rebels, at the beginning. Or later, dancers dressed like dandies to the medley of “We Are Never Getting Back Together”/”This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.”
In-between is Swift’s own hilariously overblown version of the “tilted stage” referred to in “Are You Ready for It?” – in which she basically steals Kanye West’s own uneven stage, plants her throne upon it, turns the platform almost into a dancer-tossing tilt-a-whirl, and surrounds it with snakes, both inflatables and on the 172-by-40 foot video screen.
But if the Medusa imagery is what will be talked about most the next day, the show remains dominated more by her warmth than her warpath. At the Rose Bowl, unlike opening night, she was no longer sitting at the piano and telling the audience why she’d chosen the snake imagery. (Her fans, no strangers to the Internet, had probably already read those remarks.) Instead, she used that segment at the keys to commune with the audience to reestablish a bond.
“What I really love about the fact that we exist in this time is that I’m able to kind of keep up with you,” she said, prior to singing “Long Live.” “I meet a lot of people before and after the shows, and then I don’t really have to wonder what you’re up to. If I want to, I can figure out what’s going on with you—like, ‘What’s been going on with her in the last year?’ And I get to keep up with you on Instagram and Tumblr and see what you’re doing. Even before the show, I can see what you’re wearing to the show… I love how much you care about lyrics. I love how much you care about human emotion. And I get to see what different phases you’re going through in your lives. I’ve been doing this since was 16 and I’m 28 now… I love seeing the phases of our lives and going through them together, the ups and the downs.”
If any other performer at the superstar level said that, you’d say, “Oh, come off it.” But anyone who knows that Swift often picks her meet-and-greet guests from among the fans who’s impressed her on Instagram know she’s not kidding. Her message to Swifites: Big sister is watching you – in the actually sibling-like, non-totalitarian sense of the term. Cynics may have reason to be suspicious of such a peculiar communion. But at the end of another day of tragedy rooted in young male rage in America, there could hardly be a better place to find some succor than in the company of 60,000 people gathered for the essential purpose — props and pyro aside — of hearing a smart young woman sing about her feelings.
That goes for middle-billed Cabello, too, who is able to work a vulnerable, downright Swiftian ballad like “Consequences” into an otherwise flashy 35-minute performance. “When we’re exposed, that’s when we’re the most beautiful, right?” said Cabello, taking to the piano for that solo interlude, clearly taking some lessons in intimacy establishment from the evening’s master.
Cabello is already at the blockbuster point where she could be headlining arenas, but it makes sense on all kinds of levels that she’s getting some additional seasoning opening for Swift. Whether the 21-year-old will ever achieve the headliner’s depth remains to be seen, but what she does have is a set based around one album that already feels like a greatest-hits set. You’d almost pity the execs who have to make a choice for her next single between “Inside Out,” “Into It” and “In the Dark” — to name just the possibilities with an “in-“ prefix — if Cabello weren’t on such a monumental roll that probably any pick will equally suffice.
Cabello is a newcomer only as a solo artist, of course, and the years with Fifth Harmony have offered her a chance to build up her stage presence, even as she remains in that sweet spot where she feels like a guileless upstart. The one thing dogging Cabello in performance now is how artificial the wall of canned vocals can feel in spots, a problem that might be resolved with the addition of a few live support singers or, at the very least, re-recording the album backups to sound less processed. But she’s a winning presence in the moments that do emphasize her naked singing — “Consequences” was prefaced by a snippet of Elvis’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” — or just some choreography. Another trick from the Swift book is having the whole gang of dancers tag along with her from one end of the stage to the other. The “Havana” hitmaker is never more winsome than when she’s running, or tangoing, with the pack.
Charli XCX’s pre-sundown set was less about choreography and more about a slightly cruder brand of cheerleading, which was just as welcome. Her punkier attitude was evident in her garb, which included an entire outer layer of loose, clear plastic, as if she’d taken the venue’s “transparent bags only” admittance policy a little too far.
“I like boys, too,” Charli XCX, said, late into her 25-minute set, and it was partly to help introduce a song called, yes, “Boys.” But it was also recognition that this particular touring assemblage implicitly treats guys the way women are used to be treated: as perfectly adorable, desirable and maybe even necessary accessories. Shawn Mendes might’ve even been exactly the tokenism the show needed.